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Survivors

Coin collectors are resilient. They have to be.

In the past seven years they have been put through a real-life version of “Survivor” by the Great Recession.

I am thinking about this today because I have been invited to participate in a panel discussion at the Numismatic Literary Guild meeting on the topic of print publishing versus Internet publishing. This will occur at the American Numismatic Association World’s Fair of Money.

Like many topics, the facts do not break down so simply into these two categories.

In numismatics, the bottom line is all about collectors. They need information. They seek it out. They get what they want.

They want to identify coins, learn their values and buy them.

How they do this is changing. The popular narrative puts this into terms of declining print and rising Internet.

But when you start asking why, it isn’t just a technology story.

It is a story about declining collector numbers. The peak participation of the population in numismatics was in 1964. However, the decline since then was masked by a rising willingness among those remaining to spend more money on coins.

The recent recession took funds away from collectors by unemployment, early retirement and under water real estate prices.

The bullion business, which has provided huge cash flow to dealers has declined since 2011. As of last week the price of gold was down 42 percent and silver was down 70 percent.

Into this environment came the effects of new technology.

There are those who are prepared to buy online and make payments electronically. There are those who still do transactions the old-fashioned way.

But the old-fashioned way is not just mail-order from print offers. It includes coming to coin shows and absorbing the expenses of doing business this way. It means going to coin shops and spending time getting there and back. It is about consigning and bidding for coins at auction.

From top to bottom, the way we do things in numismatics is changing.

The changes are as much generational as technological.

Newcomers often feel they do not have to pay for good information. They can go online and find great amounts of information. Why pay for it?

The older generation did not throw money around, but they believed they needed a grounding of information that they could get from print publications like “Numismatic News” and books like “Coin Digest,” which have coin descriptions, mintage figures and price guides in them.

Armed with these basic tools, if they encountered a sales pitch anywhere, they could evaluate for themselves whether a coin is scarce and desirable and whether the price is in line with the market or too high by a factor of three or four times.

The educational job print has long performed has also been moving online. The challenge during the transition is to find enough revenue to support the move.

How do newcomers find the true, unvarnished information they need? You still cannot Google true, unvarnished numismatic information and necessarily end up where you need to be.

The older generation cut through the fog by asking a dealer at his shop what was what. They went to a coin show. They got dealer feedback there. They picked up free copies of print products. They went to coin club meetings and learned from other collectors.

In short, the older generation trained itself by these many interactions with people.

The newcomer model is not yet settled. The interactions are online.

This uncertainty has given rise to today’s NLG panel discussion.

How long the transition goes on is the ultimate question. The older generation will not be around forever.

In the late 1990s I had an email from the sponsor of an online numismatic forum. It basically said, “You’re toast.”

The forum is gone and the print products are still here.

Perhaps like the decline in collector numbers since 1964, the ongoing changes in print versus Internet continue for much longer than we can know. I will be eagerly listening to what other panel members have to say.

The fundamental truth, though, is there will always be collectors who need information.

The responsibility of getting it to them in the form they want it falls on my shoulders.

 

 

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